Brow Beat

Trevor Noah’s Remarks About Disability Representation Only Scratch the Surface, but They’re a Good Start

Kevin Hart holds a bowl and stands in front of Bryan Cranston, seated in a wheelchair.
Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston in The Upside. STX Entertainment

Hi there! Yes, I’m talking to you, the person reading this. Welcome to the blog. Take your shoes off, get comfortable. How did you get here, I wonder? Were you scrolling through Twitter or Facebook? Did the headline intrigue you? Did it make you want to rage about political correctness run amok in the comments section without actually reading the post or watching the video? If so, by all means, don’t let me keep you. If you’re still reading, though, let’s take a sec to get to know each other.

A little bit about me: I’m an assistant editor here at Slate. I like Star Wars, and I’m very good at that piano arcade game that’s like Dance Dance Revolution, except you use your hands instead of your feet. I had a ham sandwich for lunch. You can say hello to me on Twitter, if you’d like. I’m telling you all this because of something Trevor Noah said in a video posted by The Daily Show over the weekend. “Online everyone just swears at each other. Nobody speaks anymore,” he said. “No one has a conversation that’s nuanced.” So before we start swearing at each other, I just thought I’d take a moment to introduce myself.

Noah made that observation about the state of the internet while discussing a recent casting controversy: In The Upside, a remake of the French film The Intouchables, Bryan Cranston plays a man who is paralyzed below the neck and uses a wheelchair. Advocates have criticized Cranston—as they have other actors in the past—for playing a disabled character that could have gone to a disabled actor. According to Sky News, Cranston acknowledged “the need to expand the opportunities for people with disabilities” but defended taking the role, comparing it to playing a gay character as a straight man or a poor character as a wealthy person. “I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that?” he asked. “I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues.”

Noah tackled the controversy on the set of The Daily Show, speaking more casually to the audience than he normally would in a formal, scripted segment. “I’m not gonna lie, my first instinct—because I love Bryan Cranston—my first instinct was like, are you being serious?” he said. “C’mon, man. We’re going too far now. You can’t—like, they’re actors. Actors are gonna act. If we get everyone who is the thing to be the thing, then it’s not acting, then it’s just the thing, it’s a documentary.” But then, Noah explained that, in a rare moment of online civility, he read something that changed his mind, written by a wheelchair-using actor whom Noah did not name.

Here’s how Noah tells it:

He just wrote a really cogent, beautiful response online. Didn’t fight with anybody, didn’t call anybody anything, didn’t judge anybody. And he completely opened my eyes to a perspective I never thought of. He said, “I understand what an actor is. I, too, am an actor. But I’m an actor in a wheelchair, and I never see parts that are leading roles for a person in a wheelchair. And so the one time I see a role where there’s a person in a wheelchair, I think, wow, this could be it. This could be the moment where I have all of the tools necessary to play this part. Do I get a shot at playing it?” And he was like, “Because when you think of it on the flip side, they never call people with wheelchairs in to play able-bodied people, and they’ll get able-bodied people to play people in wheelchairs.”

I never thought of it like that. My perspective, obviously, as someone who is not in a wheelchair—I just never thought of it that way. And I sat there and I was like, it’s powerful because you don’t think about representation, you don’t think about how important it is for people to see themselves onscreen in a real way. And at the same time, I don’t think Bryan Cranston did anything wrong. I don’t think everything has to be a fight. It’s just, like, a moment to be like, hey, maybe next time people in Hollywood can look at that and go, maybe you can get a relatively unknown actor to play that role and then put an A-lister opposite them and maybe this becomes their breakout. Maybe this becomes the thing that blows them up.

And that’s where you realize how powerful representation is, because if you’re a person in a wheelchair, how many movies come along where the lead character is in a wheelchair? There’s virtually none. And even myself, I was like, oh man, I have to try and understand that a little bit more. It was eye-opening.

From there, Noah goes on a tangent about how he wanted to star in the live-action Lion King remake, even if he had to play a tree, and the moment passes. But it was obviously effective: As of press time, the clip had accumulated almost 800,000 views on YouTube and 344,000 views on Twitter.

To be clear, this was not an official, scripted segment of The Daily Show, just Noah riffing on camera in between scenes, as he often does. But maybe it should be an official segment, given that the topic obviously interests him and there’s an audience for this discussion. Noah is open and reasonable throughout, acknowledging the limits of his perspective while being generous to all involved, including Cranston. He’s also more likely to convince people who are skeptical about the importance of casting disabled actors in disabled roles. After all, he was skeptical, too.

The debate around disability representation in Hollywood is multifaceted, and there’s no way Noah could or should even try to cover every angle in such a short amount of a time, but there is one key detail missing from his story of self-reflection: the name of the actor whose words made him rethink his initial position. A few people have speculated on Twitter that it might be filmmaker Dominick Evans, who wrote of The Upside: “As a wheelchair user I could never play Bryan Cranston, so why the here can he play someone like me?! That’s the thing people don’t understand … disabled actors are not allowed to play nondisabled characters, and in some cases we could never play someone nondisabled.”

Whoever this person is, why not invite him on The Daily Show as a guest and let him speak for himself? How about also asking Katy Sullivan, the Paralympian and actress who wrote an open letter to Dwayne Johnson, about the lack of meaty roles for an amputee, or talking to NCIS: New Orleans star Daryl Mitchell, who has some smart observations about the relationship between disability and race? Heck, bring Cranston on—and bring his former Breaking Bad co-star RJ Mitte, another outspoken proponent of disabled representation. Just keep talking about it. No swearing required.

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